Eme Onuoha is a strategist with a Canadian institutional investment firm and has held several senior positions within the Government of Canada.
Thirty years ago today, while studying international relations at McMaster University, I watched a broadcast of a youngish Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, delivering an address to the United Nations General Assembly. It was an admirable rebuke of South Africa’s apartheid regime. His eloquent narrative invoked the prophetic imperatives of wealth inequality, climate change, the proliferation of lethal weapons and the existential threat of global environmental degradation. Canada stood tall.
When I told my father about the speech he quickly pointed out that it wasn’t the first time a Canadian prime minister had spoken out against apartheid. In 1961, my father reveled in John Diefenbaker’s admonishment of the regime in a speech he made on the margins of a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London. Fuelled by a profound sense of moral indignation, Mr. Diefenbaker not only delivered an eloquent critique of South Africa’s racist public policy, he also helped orchestrate a coalition of like-minded Commonwealth leaders in support of an unrelenting campaign against apartheid. Canada stood tall.
At the time, my father (an émigré born and raised in rural Nigeria) was studying at Westminster College in London. In that moment, he felt there might actually be hope for pan-African renewal, or at the very least, global acknowledgment of the brutal repression and homicidal subservience that all too often characterized the life and death of sub-Saharan Africans. Two years later, my father would emigrate to Canada and eventually start a family with my mother. John Diefenbaker would be their first Canadian Prime Minister.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a first-year Laval University law student from the Quebec village of Baie-Comeau named Brian Mulroney was also galvanized by Mr. Diefenbaker’s anti-apartheid efforts. So much so that he and several other students travelled to Ottawa to greet Mr. Diefenbaker upon his return from London. A generation later, the haunting revelations of apartheid and the unconventional courage they evoked would eventually manifest themselves in the context of Mr. Mulroney’s tenure as Canada’s 18th prime minister.
Mr. Mulroney’s approach to apartheid was driven by a reverence for human rights and a fundamental sense of moral outrage at the brutal subjugation of people of colour in South Africa. Like Mr. Diefenbaker, Mr. Mulroney not only developed a compelling anti-apartheid narrative, he also skillfully orchestrated a relentless advocacy campaign that had a catalytic effect on Commonwealth leaders and beyond. His deliberate sense of urgency also helped stiffen the spine of those within the foreign policy apparatus who may have been more inclined to provide risk-averse advice in the interest of moderating Canada’s tactical diplomatic efforts.
One of Mr. Mulroney’s greatest achievements in the anti-apartheid campaign was persuading the defiant former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher that Britain should drop its strident opposition to economic sanctions against South Africa. It was nothing short of a Herculean effort given Britain’s embedded economic interests in South Africa and its dominant position in the Commonwealth.
All of this resurfaced for me recently when I took my 12-year-old daughter to see the Nelson Mandela exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. What should have been a 45-60-minute walk through the exhibit turned into a 3½-hour interactive history lesson for both of us.
A year prior to our museum visit, I had the opportunity to introduce my daughter to Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, in Ottawa. It therefore came as no surprise to me when my daughter sat captivated in the interactive, multimedia section of the exhibit watching an archival video clip from Mr. Mulroney’s landmark speech at the UN General Assembly in 1988.
Emboldened by the museum experience, my daughter spent most of the afternoon schooling me on the nature of Mr. Mulroney’s efforts to end apartheid. With one major exception, the conversation was very similar to the one I had with my father 30 years prior.
Although my daughter was inspired by the authentic leadership of prime ministers Mulroney and Diefenbaker in the fight against apartheid, she did ask me why Canada’s position on apartheid in South Africa back then didn’t seem to apply to the treatment of Indigenous people here at home. She also pointed out that our current Prime Minister seemed to be more focused on Indigenous reconciliation than his predecessors. In asking these questions, my 12-year-old daughter reflected a far more nuanced level of consciousness with respect to the struggle for human rights around the world and here at home than I had at her age. Canada stood tall.
In response to her questions, I told my daughter that the pursuit of human rights is a marathon without a finish line. We have to constantly keep moving forward. In doing so, it will always be important to temper retrospective righteousness with forward-looking humility.
As a first-generation-born Canadian of sub-Saharan African descent, I realize the road to social justice is neither linear nor short. I also realize that it is only by means of the intergenerational courage to ask and answer potentially heretical questions at all levels that Canada will continue to stand tall.